An African editors tour of the capital, Cairo, included an audience with the Grand Imam, Dr Ahmed al-Tayeb of Al-Azar, Egypt, as well as Pope Tawadros 11, of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.
Al-Azhar is more than an historic mosque founded in Cairo in 970AD: it is a vital Egyptian institution that, 1 000 years later plays an important role within the country and beyond.
Islamic clerics and scholars do not get involved in politics, says Imam Al-Tayeb, but they do participate in the national discourse, work towards social upliftment and conflict resolution, and serve everyone regardless of religion with compassion and in the interests of peace.
The Al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism works to counter misinterpretations of Islam and put a stop to hate in the name of religion, while its Convoys spread the message of tolerance and offer practical support in countries, including Chad, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan, he said.
The institution supported the initiative of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as AU chair to “Silence the Guns”, an effort to end war and violent conflict on the continent, and promote development, a theme to be continued by South Africa which takes over the AU chair in February.
Al-Azhar is a centre of scholarship and home to the world’s second-oldest Islamic university, which draws its 300 000 students from far and wide; and it supports schools with more than 2 million learners offering the Egyptian curriculum with an emphasis on reading, maths, science and Islamic studies, as well as numerous language and religious studies centres.
Its influence extends beyond Egypt with a presence in 23 African countries, including South Africa.
Al-Tayeb said Africa needed not only religious leaders but doctors, engineers and scientists,and Al-Azhar granted scholarships to 5 000 students from 46 African countries to study in a variety of fields at its institutions.
Another programme is the training of imams, with a focus on dealing with the misconceptions of Islam spread by terrorist groups, and an outreach which started in Nigeria and will be rolled out to other African countries, he said.
The Grand Imam engages regularly with other religious leaders, including those from the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths, and last year was received at the Vatican by Pope Francis, where the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together was discussed.
This document calls for co-operation in spreading a culture of tolerance and living in harmony; an end the bloodshed of wars and conflicts; to address hate and intolerance, violence and extremism; to protect the environment and the rights of women; and, to build a moral society and true citizenship for all.
Although Christians are in the minority in Egypt, religious tolerance is seen as a hallmark. An example was the building and simultaneous opening of the huge Al-Fattah Al-Aleem Mosque and Cathedral of the Nativity in Egypt’s new administrative capital east of Cairo in January last year.
Speaking to the’ group at the St Mark’s Cathedral complex, seat of the Coptic Orthodox Pope in Cairo, Pope Tawadros II said the Coptic church had been established in Alexandria in the 1AD by St Mark the Evangelist.
Iconography in churches around Cairo – including the site of the Church of St Sergius and St Bacchus where the Holy family is believed to have found a safe haven during the Flight into Egypt – reflect the importance of this area to the early Christian Church.
The Coptic Orthodox Church has an expanded ministry with 33 dioceses outside Egypt, and 500 churches in around 50 countries worldwide. Although its missionary work began earlier, a physical presence in South Africa was only established in the 1990s with the lifting of restrictive regulations at the end of apartheid. Among its institutions here are the St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church and St Mark and St Samuel the Confessor Monastery in Joburg.
Pope Tawadros II said the church had good relations with the Egyptian leadership and Islamic organisations, and has met religious luminaries, such as Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
An area of mutual concern is the fight against extremism and terrorism and he had praise for Egypt’s strong forces in protecting the country. Egypt as a holy place, he said, had a role in preventing the spread of fanaticism and the church had a responsibility to promote peace and living in harmony.